At 11 months old, Steve Serio had surgery to remove a spinal tumor, resulting in his spinal cord being compressed and ultimately leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The 34-year-old wheelchair basketball player views the diagnosis and outcome not as an unfortunate circumstance but as the start of his personal journey.
“I like to tell people that my life began when I was 11 months old because so much of my life has been defined by my disability,” Serio told Bally Sports. “I didn't always have a positive outlook. Growing up with a disability was not easy. I was always trying to hide my disability.”
“It wasn't until I found wheelchair basketball, and adaptive sports specifically, where I learned that I'm able to shatter any and all expectations if I see my disability as not something to shy away from, but as something to use to my advantage,” he added. “The reason why wheelchair basketball — (why) I gravitated toward it so much — is because it was the first time in my life where I played a sport, a sport that I loved with people who looked like me, and I didn't have to change the rules so that I can play. I didn't have to always be the last one picked because of my disability.”
Serio, a three-time Paralympian and two-time medalist (Rio 2016 gold and London 2012 bronze) is a hooper at heart. Baseball was his sport while growing up as a New York Yankees fan, but around age 15, he discovered wheelchair basketball.
“I just fell in love with the team concept,” Serio said. “I fell in love with the idea of accomplishing a goal that is bigger than just one player can accomplish. I just loved being around people that I liked, being around my friends.
“It's about the bonds that you build with your teammates, with your coaching staff and everything else. Those are the things that stick with me, and it's the reason why I love the game.”
The University of Illinois alum will have plenty of time to bond with his U.S. teammates and coaches this summer at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, which start Aug. 24. He has experienced both success and failure with Team USA, but when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill last year, he said he wasn’t equipped to handle the postponement of the Paralympics.
After four years of training in preparation for Tokyo, Serio said it was difficult to come to grips with the fact he would not be competing. Serio, a member of the New York Rolling Knicks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, said he worked with a sports psychologist who ultimately helped him understand that he needed to stay focused on things he can control.
“To take a step back in 2020 and take a little bit of a rest, both mentally and physically, it allowed me and a lot of my teammates time to really prioritize what was important,” he said, “and also make sure that we will be the best versions of ourselves for Tokyo 2021.”
Serio said he spent five years playing in Germany after graduating in college in 2010 and returned to Europe last year to play for RSV Lahn-Dill when the German Bundesliga reopened.
“The pandemic allowed me to go back for six months and train at a high level. I’m very thankful for that,” he said. “While the year has been very challenging (and) extremely unpredictable, I think that all the athletes are ready to show our resiliency in Tokyo."
In addition to Algeria and Iran, Team USA is grouped with Australia, Great Britain, Germany — which, including the U.S., are the top teams in the world, according to Serio. He emphasized that whichever country comes out of that pool and goes on to win the 12-team tournament will have earned it. While he’s confident in the Americans’ chances, he is not overlooking any of their opponents.
“Us and GB are at the top of the world rankings right now, and everybody else is below us in another tier,” Serio said. “But if I've learned one thing over the last three Paralympic Games, it’s that anything can happen. It's a crazy two weeks, so we're not taking anything for granted. We have very high expectations, but we're excited for the challenge.”
Not only has the sport’s equipment improved but so has the quality of competition. Just like in regular basketball, teams adapt to the game, implementing four-out, one-big or small-ball lineups.
“A lot of people, when they think about wheelchair basketball, they have all these questions like, ‘What are the rules like? Do you play on a 10-foot hoop? What are fouls? Do you shoot 3s?’” Serio said. “The answer is I really want you and your audience to watch it.”
Serio said he has tried to model his game after NBA stars — Stephen Curry for his dynamic nature and leadership and the late Kobe Bryant for his “Mamba Mentality” — and he loves the sport. But his life doesn’t revolve around basketball. It revolves around helping others, specifically kids with disabilities and making them feel comfortable and proud of who they are.
“The impact that I can have is greater off the court,” Serio said. “Raising the awareness and making sure that people with disabilities have the same amount of access to adaptive sports as able-body children.”
Serio is thrilled about getting to Tokyo, soaking in its culture and devouring tons of sushi. He hopes to bring home another gold medal with Team USA, too, but whether he does or not, Serio is optimistic about what he will achieve in the future.
“I would say that my biggest accomplishment off the court is yet to come,” he said. “… Once I'm able to set my time towards increasing the awareness and fundraising for people with disabilities, and not necessarily focused on what happens on the court, I think that's when you'll see my true impact. And I'm really excited for that opportunity.”